Mom enrolled only me at Saint Clare’s, a Catholic parochial school. It’s two blocks from Washington Elementary and Santa Clara Intermediate/High, public schools which my brothers attended.
Baptism according to Catholic Church tenets leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul. I can assure the nuns inculcate catechism lessons does too.
The second sacrament after Baptism, First Communion, is a major Catholic event. It occurs when one has attained the age of reason, the ability to sin or not. At Saint Clare’s it was a second-grade event for seven to eight-year old students.
Requirements were a soul cleansed of sins by a priest’s confession, memorization of the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers and knowing the ten Commandments. We also leaned God was three in one, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. My wonderful second grade teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, was kind and could explain complicated religious concepts in seven-year old eloquence.
With trenchant logic, she explained the Holy Trinity is within us. God the Father is our mind, God the Son, Jesus, our heart and God the Holy Ghost is our soul. When we received Holy Communion, they became one with us.
She explained we each had our personal guardian angel, sent by God to always protect us from harm and to ensure we were never alone. When we prayed, our angel carried our message to God by wings, a form of special delivery. The angel also protected us from Satan, a fallen angel, who was lurking about to trip us into evil.
She described the Blessed Virgin Mary as a super Mom, someone who we could always call on in a pinch. I frequently made those calls later in life. Each saint had its unique place in heaven and heard our pleas if prayed to. They then put in a good word for us in their trouble shooting specialty before God.
Other more sophisticated theological aspects were also introduced. Heaven and hell had been introduced in first grade. Now purgatory and limbo were covered. Purgatory in Catholicism is a temporary spot in hell where minor un-repented sins, are burned off before God lets you beyond heaven’s gate. I liked this concept. The brother, one year younger than me, needed some purgatory burn time for his infractions of teasing me and being a pest. I didn’t want him, however, to be in hell for eternity.
Limbo was where unbaptized babies went. When I asked what limbo was like, the good nun described it as a nursery. I asked what happened when they got older but was told they never grew up but were comfortable, well fed and had their diapers changed.
While Mom, I and my brothers were baptized, Dad wasn’t. I asked if he was going to hell as Limbo was out due to his age but she did a theological leap. She explained by being a good person he was baptized via time and action as were all good non-Catholics. I don’t know if this was true theologically but it satisfied me.
She also versed us in the 10 commandments to ensure they weren’t just rote memorizations. I can still recite them:
- I am the Lord your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
The first was easy enough; Mom and I attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation so we were covered. I worried, however, about Dad and those not Catholic. Sister Mary Joseph explained they were just confused and God, in His justice, forgave and accepted them if they were good. When I asked.
“God’s a man?”
She winked and replied.
“No, His is just a pronoun, God is everything, he, she, it, male, female, everything.”
The second was another easy one except again I worried about Dad. He cursed in Chinese if he had bad luck or stubbed his toe. His curses, however, were explained by the good nun as against a Chinese pagan god not covered in commandment one.
The third was easy, kind of a repeat of number one. Again, I feared for the rest of the family and others I knew who didn’t go to Mass on Sundays. I didn’t want to be in heaven with Mom the only one known. The kind sister said not to worry.
“They don’t sin because they don’t know better.”
This caused a flash of heresy.
“Sister is it better not to know too much?”
“No, my dear girl, if you know God, you are closer to God.”
Not wanting to pursue this further, I accepted Dad and my siblings would be in heaven with me but a little distant from the center of action yet still close enough for me to visit.
Number four was the big one back then. I worked hard on it and did what Mom asked. Dad was an easy pass. He never asked me to do anything.
Five was a no brainer, I’d never kill anyone, not even a bird with a BB gun like my brothers. When I asked about war the good nun said killing then was only against bad people God wanted dead.
Six and nine were confusing as I didn’t understand the details referred to. When questioned a bit, she explained adultery as kissing or hugging when not married and nine was when a man wanted another man’s wife, kind of like stealing.
Seven, eight and ten were simple don’ts, don’t lie, steal or want to steal. I never lied except when Mom told me to tell salesmen she wasn’t home when she was. This was explained as not really lying because Mom was not home to that person. While ten crossed my mind a few times, especially at Christmas and birthday parties when a girl got a present I wanted, I never stole
The ten Commandments were a little more complicated than when first read and covered some things not understood. I worried a bit about my stealth public-school bus rides and cafeteria lunches but decided the Ten Commandments didn’t explicitly condemned these and it was best not to complicate things. I didn’t fret further over details, accepted Sister Mary Joseph’s explanations, memorized the required prayers and the ten commandments until I could repeat them by number out of sequence when asked.
When saying the Hail Mary prayer, I didn’t understand “Immaculate Conception” or even “Virgin” but she Explained these simply meant Mary was pure, without sin and I put them down as additional titles like, Blessed.
To this day, I mentally talk to Sister Mary Joseph. She explains complicated moral dilemmas and reconciles what I’ve done and need to do to get me back into God’s grace.
With one more memorization, I was ready for my First Confession. I memorized what I was to say for confession. It was simple enough as tested on the good sister who was my first confessor. She was one who I could tell all to except she couldn’t wipe the sins off as she was not a priest.
In response to the priest’s introduction,
“Bless you child, is this your first confession?”
I memorized my response.
“Yes, father this is my first confession.”
“What are your sins?”
“I disobeyed my mother and did not do the dishes when first asked. I also wish I had a Schwinn bicycle like other girls.”
The priest in response would mete out the appropriate penance and I’d be free of sin after I performed my punishment. It worked. When I left the confessional with a penance of three Hail Mary’s to do, a great feeling of relief swept me. I crossed myself, quickly recited my penance, re- crossed myself and was sparkling clean before God.
Mom and I made my First Communion outfit. When the big day arrived, even Dad said I looked beautiful in white, a little bride, he called me. He gave me five dollars. I doubled down on good deeds and gave each brother a dollar. Dad also gave me a rabbit’s foot with a brass metal case holding the stump on a little chain. He said it was for good luck by his deity.
“Shu, always keep this with you, for good luck. Often in life we need a backup. Sometimes you lose. Pet it as backup to make you feel better.”
My first communion was the only time Dad went to church until I married. I was so proud he was there with Mom. I carried the rabbit’s foot to the altar with me and in life, my talisman and petted it as needed.
Sunday, the boys and girls were segregated and assembled on the church steps for photo ops. Mom brought her little Kodak. When the bells rang we were marched in, boys first filling the front pews, then us girls. The boys, dressed in little suits with a few only attired with a white shirt, tie and corduroy pants. They were not the center of attention. We girls in our first communion outfits were the big act.
We stood, sat and kneeled through the Latin service until the altar boy rang the bells announcing the transubstantiation as Jesus Christ became the Eucharist host. We kneeled, back straight, with aching knees, waiting for Sister Mary Joseph to signal our pew to the altar.
When she reached my pew, I rose with back straight with the others, kept my hands together in prayer and followed the procession to the altar, relieved my knees finally got a break. At the marble altar railing, I again knelt with hands reverently up. As I awaited my turn for the priest, I felt the starched linen covering the railing, my knees again sore. As the priest approached I opened my mouth wide and extended my tongue. The priest plucked a host of Jesus Christ from the gold chalice, held it between his thumb and index finger as required, crossed it before my face and gently laid it on my stretched tongue as he blessed me in Latin.
With God within, I bowed my head, crossed myself, rose and walked back to my pew with hands in prayer, filled with the Holy Trinity. I was, careful not to let the host touch my teeth and instead let it slowly dissolve on my tongue as told by the good sister. She’d explained, God didn’t like to get chewed up before entering one’s body. Kneeling in the pew, a wonderful feeling of joy filled me. I experienced a shroud of light. God the Father, Jesus His only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost were united with my soul. My knees were no longer sore. It’s a mystical and emotional experience those not Catholic miss and cannot comprehend. Thereafter, I loved going to Holy Communion and did so every Sunday and racked up a slew of plenary indulgences, a Catholic Church tenet of get out of purgatory cards, much needed later in life.
In addition to communion I loved to sing and loved to hear, Gloria in excelsis Deo, (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest") and Kyrie Eleison, (Greek for "Lord have mercy"). Even the Gregorian chant was beautiful to my ears. With an atypical contralto singing voice, the nuns put me in the school choir as a semi star. In grade school, with the sisters urging, I decided to be a nun. Dad laughed saying I would become a penguin but Mom encouraged me and prayed it would happen.
On my school papers, I initialed J M J, centered on the top, for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Each of my school pages were dedicated to the Holy Family. In my little purse, I carried a Saint Teresa's holy picture as my role model. She died a virgin rather than be raped. I also wore a Saint Christopher's medal which ensured I would have a chance to make a last confession and save my soul before I died. In school we learned death was our fate. It was drilled into us, it could happen any second, which at the time appeared possibly imminent from nuclear attack, its probability reinforced with school air raid drills.
With Moffett Naval Air Base nearby we were part of a big X on a Russian nuke map. Periodically the air raid siren would suddenly wail to let us know we were under attack. The fifty plus students in each class marched in strict doomed silence under the direction of the nuns into the corridor. There, we formed long columns in the crowded hallway, crouched on our knees, put our foreheads on the floor, covered our heads with our arms and waited to be blown to smithereens.
As the air raid siren continued to wail, our foreheads pressed to the floor, the stern eyes of the nuns watched to ensure no head rose, an infraction resulting in an immediate rap on the head with a nun’s wooden clicker.
The clicker also served as if a death ray gun for more distant infractions in the classroom.
A few boys, despite our pending deaths, sneaked a glance if a girl's skirt was askew revealing a thigh. The nuns patrolled looking for this mortal sin infraction, their long habits swept the floor as they paced above us. When crouching down, I flipped a hand back to tuck my skirt snug to cover my thighs. I didn’t want to be the subject of boys snickering comments at recess.
Once the fire marshal was satisfied with our response, the siren would wail a wobble, all clear, which meant we had been bypassed for nuking, the Russian bomber was shot down or the drill was a test, the latter always the cause. With the all clear wobble, we arose and nosily marched back to our desks, impressed with our good fortune of again not being blown up by an atomic bomb.
In the classroom the nuns used the air raid drills as reminders of our potential sudden death and the danger to our souls, if tainted by mortal sin. We were immersed in the idea, life on earth is fleeting but life after death is eternal. If we tripped up in this life, were caught dead with even a single unconfessed mortal sin, the punishment was eternal hell. The good news was a priest’s confession, no matter how bad the sin, immediately cleared the slate.
Hell, and its opposite, heaven were constant classroom themes. Pictures were used for religious teaching reinforcement. In the classrooms, the nun kept a large roll of fantasied colored pictures on a wood pictorial frame. Setting it up in front of the class the desired picture could be flipped for the class to see.
The vivid pictorial roll consisted of winged angels looking blissfully down from clouds, saints and martyrs, some horribly tortured, the stages of Jesus's life including crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the fate of sinners caught in mortal sin at death.
These sinners were pictured in hell, roasting over burning sulfur, gnawed on but never eaten by wild beasts, and my favorite, cooking in a giant boiling pot, each suffering their punishment for eternity. I didn't question the nun's punishment orthodoxy of hell but did think eternity in hell for eating meat on Friday too severe. I rationalized the punishment was for being stupid. How could anyone wantonly eat meat on Friday, our family loved seafood.
In school, I was Miss Lin or Elizabeth to the nuns. I was Lin, Liz, Lizzy, Lizard, slant eyes and eventually Cobra to classmates. While tagged “slant eyes” I never experienced racial prejudice that I recognized. Many got physical trait names. “Slant eyes” was like “big ears”, “whitey”, shorty, etc. I preferred Elizabeth but in fifth grade, I’d made the mistake of sticking out my extendable tongue in reply to “slant eyes”. Thereafter I was nicknamed Cobra. I tried to ignore this tag, kept my tongue in but it stuck and Cobra followed me into high school.
Saint Clare’s racial mix blended from blond white to a dark chocolate brown. There were Portuguese, Mexicans, even a few Italians darker than me. In school, we were taught, all humans are part of God’s Mystical Body, each an integral piece of equal importance to the whole. I, however, thought myself part of the Mystical Body’s brain, my rationalization of superiority.
In the eighth grade we learned the evils of other faiths starting with Martin Luther and his church door list of orthodoxy errors. Judaism was lightly skipped over as old news and Islam never mentioned except for the liberation of Granada from the Moors when Spain was at last free.
One Protestant heresy perked my interest, John Calvin’s Presbyterianism tenet of predestination. God knowing all, knows all including what we did and what we will do. There is, therefore no free will. If God knows everything I will do before I do it, it means what I do is predetermined. None, even sister Mary Joseph, could give me a satisfactory explanation of our having free will if God knows everything.
While devout, interested in abstract heresy and boy shy, I experienced boy crushes. In eighth grade I was a secret admirer. He had a Hispanic last name, Castro, but was blond and blue eyed. I attended his basketball games and cherished his dribbling from the bleachers but never talked to him, afraid of being rejected.
When living in rural farm houses, I sneaked on the public-school bus with my brothers, hopped off with them at their school and walked the two blocks to Saint Clare’s. After school, I traipsed back over, got in the school bus line, clambered on in the rush with others and returned home with my brothers. None revealed my stowaway status but in hindsight, I suspect the bus driver knew.
Public school provided another perk not available at parochial school. It served a cafeteria hot lunch for a quarter. To cash in, I slinked away from Saint Clare’s when the noon yard watch nun looked the other way and ambled to the cafeteria. My cheap hot meal stratagem, however, was complicated by segregated cafeteria service time periods between public grade and high school students. My lunch time was when public the high school students were served.
At the cafeteria, I looked down, slid in the meal line, took my stainless-steel tray with indentations and they plopped the food on., As a runt among giants, my pat excuse, if questioned, was.
“I’m late because I had a special assignment to finish.”
The elderly women servers, however, never, gave me a second glance and my twenty-five cents was accepted without questions by the cashier. Past the danger of confrontation exposure, I carried my tray to a vacant chair, gulped my meal down in unmolested silence then scurried back to Saint Clare’s. Again, in hindsight, my stealth student cafeteria meal probably fooled none. They dished out the food and took my quarter without care where I went to school. By sixth grade, my older brother was in the high school meal time and looked out for me.
Attending parochial and our shifting occupancy in rural houses made me comfortable as a loner. As a bus stowaway, I lacked common school attendance with those on the bus, missed walking with fellow Saint Clare’s students coming and going to school and my cafeteria stealth lunches limited my lunch time with fellow students.
My school holidays were different from public schools They got out the week before Christmas and Easter, mine the week after. Classmates didn’t visit my house due to distance and I didn’t invite them due to home turf embarrassment.
Once ensconced in our Tropicana Village home, I left early in the morning on the city bus and got home late, a stranger to neighbor kids. At home, I retreated to my tiny bedroom to escape family din and enjoyed my solitary status. The bedroom was my sanctuary where I studied and fantasized a world of my own, a world where I was queen.
While devout, interested in abstract heresy and boy shy, I experienced boy crushes. In eighth grade I was a secret admirer. He had a Hispanic last name, Castro, but was blond and blue eyed. I attended his basketball games and cherished his dribbling from the bleachers but never talked to him, afraid of being scorned.
Between thirteen and sixteen, puberty transformed me. Hop scotch and jump rope were abandoned and I sprouted to my full, five-feet seven-inch height. I ended up too dark, too skinny and with teeth and lips too big. My younger siblings prior to puberty called me frog or rubber lips due to my full lips. After puberty they added bean pole and duck because of my skinny long neck. Dad and my older brother retorted I was a swan confirming my neck was too long. I kept my lips pursed and my head down between shoulders.
On Saint Clare’s graduation the God’s select were chosen and gender segregated to avoid their mortal sin temptations. Notre Dame was the exclusive all girl Catholic high school in downtown San Jose for the "chosen" girls. Bellarmine, safely miles away, was for the boys. Selection to these schools was based on school grades, an entrance exam and probably parental influence. Catholicism also retains some of Jesus’s teaching, “Blessed are the poor” with I suspect a few chosen to retain this ideal.
I and the other 26 girls in Sister Mary Emanuel’s graduating class took the Notre Dame High School entrance exam. The boys took Bellarmine’s.
Notre Dame selected me and four others as among Saint Clare’s “chosen.” While I had no parental influence, my isolation in grade school ensured good grades. I knew I aced the test based on the questions and suspected Sister Mary Emanuel played the poverty card for me.
I accepted going to Notre Dame because Mom was ecstatic, I was shy of attending public high school, none ever refused the honor of acceptance and I was proud to be among the “chosen”.
With Notre Dame near Mom's work we rode the bus together. I earned my tuition and two dimes a day bus fare babysitting and working summers. I made my school uniforms on my little portable singer sewing machine Dad had unexpectedly bought for me. The uniforms were simple enough to make, a checkered long skirt with a white blouse. The home spun marked me as one who couldn’t afford a uniform from downtown Hart's Department Store which carried a whole selection of parochial school girl’s uniforms. I was proud to make my own and snugly looked down on girls who couldn’t sew.
My sex education during grade school consisted of misinformed school girl whispers, seeing dogs copulate and farm roosters tear out the back feathers of hens. If I thought about sex, I assumed people were stuck together after or the male held a female face down and wiggle his pelvis around her buttocks. Actually, I was more interested in what dogs were thinking as they waited to get unstuck.
Mom admonished me not to let boys "touch me" or I’d get pregnant. Neither she nor the nuns talked about touching details, even later while my body changed during puberty. Alone, without direction, I purchased my first bra and Kotex pad, not unusual back then. One didn't talk about those things but if I’d stumbled Mom would have intervened. She did say,
“Boys only want puki.”
She used Tagalog the few times she talked about sex as if English was too vulgar. Puki was Tagalog for vagina.
I was prepared for menstruation from girls gossip and it occurring for me after most my age. The girls also explained more of how the boy’s penis touched a puki and laughed at my naïve assumption of being stuck together afterwards. By eight grade I’s figured out the basics but until my freshman year, I thought it only took one "touch" and bam you were pregnant. In my first year at Notre Dame things got clearer at the downtown library and by infilling by girls who had “done it”.
My breasts developed fuller than expected for skinny me. As they grew, they tingled and ached. In bed at night, cupping them in my hands as I fell asleep, I wondered when they would stop growing. I knew their expansion became noticeable when Dad and my siblings looked away from them when talking to me.
By 16, I was fully equipped to the point some boys whistled or made comments when I walked past. At first, I assumed it was cat calls about my long neck but soon realized my breasts were the object of their attention. Turning brown-red and quickly walking away only encouraged them. It was my first sense of sexual power but I didn’t think of it as such then. Instead, I thought my breasts, like my long neck, was another deformity.
I carried my school Pee Che folder in front to avoid whistles and snickered remarks.
Author Notes: Story sets the religious school background for woman who eventually commits adultery.